Best Reads of 2018 (“Let’s Time Travel Back 6 Months, Shall We?” Edition) – Awards Feat. Art, Balloons, and Some Very Special Guests

[Note: This is a LONG intro, so feel free to scroll down to the actual list portion! But if you’ve snuck a peek and are wondering why there are photos of janky art underneath the gorgeous book covers, then read on]

Yup, I see you squinting at the title! And I’m here to tell you that you read it right.

So you might be thinking, “But Kathy, we’re over halfway through 2019. People are posting lists of their favourite 2019 books already! There’s late and there’s fashionably late and then there’s THIS. Why didn’t you post it back in January like all the normal people did? What the heck have you been doing?

Well, I’d love to give a really cool answer to that. Like, “I’m a secret agent for a society that seeks out artifacts that cause temporal rifts and I spent 6 months in Peru doing reconnaissance.”

Or “I was kayaking out in the ocean and a freak storm blew me off course, but I was rescued by pod of killer whales who then whisked me away to their cavern lair. I spent the last 6 months trying to convince them that I am not, in fact, their great whale goddess reincarnated into human form.”

But my actual, not-so-cool answer? Anxiety.

So for those who don’t know or remember, I started getting into art–specifically watercolour–11ish months ago (you can read about my art angst here). And in January, while I was compiling my Best of 2018 list, I got this brilliant idea: I should paint the characters from the books posing with the awards, but instead of giving them fancy trophies, I can pretend that I only had a $20 budget, so I had to raid the dollar store for cheap badges, balloons, and flowers instead. That’ll be fun, right?!

 

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Mm. Yeah.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about watercolour, it’s that it’s a lot like what I imagine babysitting monkeys would be. The idea is super attractive–they’re spontaneous and independent and kind of unpredictable, which is what makes them so charming and fun. This will be EASY.

And then a week later the monkeys have completely taken over your house. There’s one swinging from the ceiling lights, another one’s chucking produce out of the refrigerator, and you’ve locked yourself in the car, as they swarm around you, wondering how your life took such a turn.

 

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Which is to say…it’s not easy.

And it didn’t take me long to convince myself that this award idea was the worst ever. I was getting tired of drawing balloons, I wasn’t happy with some of the paintings but I also didn’t want to redo them, and the thought of showing these to authors whose works I admire made me want to stick a chopstick in my eye. So I ended up burying the post deep in my draft folder.

And today I’m digging it out of the ashes.

Because here’s the second thing I learned about watercolour: it demands that you be brave. It pushes you to try things without not really knowing what will happen, and knowing it could very well mess up the entire piece. It forces you to look at your mistakes and just shrug.

So this is me shrugging.

And I’m going to start by taking you all on a little trip!

Where, you ask?

Through space and time, my friends. WE’RE TRAVELING BACK TO JANUARY.

Pick your poison!

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Hop in! Strap up! Brace against the railings or walls or whatever safety mechanisms are inside the TARDIS (I’ve watched a grand total of 3/4 episode of Doctor Who in my life. I have no idea what the inside of a TARDIS looks like). And if you chose the time turner, tuck your elbows in and take ten deep breaths.

Okay. You ready?

Here we go!!!!!!!

*Runs around waving my arms and making swooshing noises for 15 minutes*

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[15 minutes later]

Oh hey there! I’m so glad you could join me on this glorious January day to go through my Best Reads of 2018 list.

So here, in no particular order, are my favourite books of 2018 and paintings of characters from said books posing with the balloons and flowers I’ve “awarded” them (you can click on the titles to see the full reviews).

(Two of the books are missing art, which I feel super bad about, but I’d messed up those pieces badly the first time and I just didn’t have the energy to redo them.)

 

Fire Dance by Ilana C. Myer

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Fire Dance, the continuation to Last Song Before Night, is proof of what I already know: 1) Ilana Myer writes like her soul is on fire, and 2) I can’t talk about this series without reverting to vague pieces of imagery and too many comparisons to Damien Rice.

And those are my favourite kinds of stories–the ones that make me feel like I’m doing a disservice by breaking them down to plot, characters, and worldbuilding (but FYI, Fire Dance nails all three to perfection).

I think what I love most about this book is that it’s not afraid to be sad and that’s not something I often find in epic fantasy. And I’m not talking about the unbearable, soul-crushing kind.

It’s like when you’re watching March of the Penguins and you see the penguins huddled together to stave off the cold and some of them inevitability freeze to death and it’s terrible and sad to watch, but you also know that’s just the way of nature. And there’s raw beauty in that. There’s beauty in the resilience of these animals and characters, and there’s sadness in the penguins’ deaths, as there’s sadness in the way these characters long for things that lie just beyond their reach, because that’s what people do.

It’s the kind of sad that, after all the tears are shed, makes the world seem a notch brighter.

Ilana writes some of the most complex and real characters in modern fantasy, and Fire Dance weaves together music, magic, and the foibles of humans into a symphony that leaves the edges of my heart tattered. I sometimes do a double take when I remember she’s only published two books because it feels like I’ve been reading her stories forever.

 

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This is a six-coloured cloak and I swear the six colours are all in there somewhere!

 

The Light Between Worlds by Laura E. Weymouth

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I’ve never read a book that so perfectly describes the feeling of drifting. Of feeling so removed from your life that you’re floating above it and the weight of nothing becomes heavy enough to suffocate. And that contradiction–of being free but still so trapped–threatens to break you.

While that might seem like a strange praise–“This takes me back to some of the worst moments of my life and that’s why I love it”–this is one of those books that made me feel seen, and I will forever be grateful for that.

The Light Between Worlds is portal fantasy stripped bare–a story about sisterhood and strength and belonging. And it’s a ray of light for all of us who are lost and trying to find a way home.

 

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…I should definitely redo this one at some point using better paper because this was a nightmare to work with.

 

Mr. Big Empty (Hollow Folk Series) by Gregory Ashe

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Yes, I’m cheating and lumping the series into one. Think X-Men: Queer Rural Town edition with addictive plotting, stunning–absolutely stunning–mental health rep and character work that makes you shake your head and go, “This can’t be real. I’m having a fever dream. No one writes this well.” I swear, Gregory Ashe takes character writing to a level I rarely see. It might be on par with, dare I say–

Brain: “Oh, no. Nonononononono. I know what you’re going to say and you can’t just say that.”

“I’m gonna say it.”

“No, Kathy–”

“Robin Hobb.”

Collective gasps sound from my mini-me’s manning control center. One drops a stack of papers. One shuffles to a corner and starts crying softly. Another swoons with a plaintive “Catch me!” (No one does).

…So you know I wouldn’t say that lightly.

There are books that are hard-hitting and emotionally resonant.

And then there are books that opens veins.

Guess where this falls into?

 

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This piece is a LOT darker than the other ones because I didn’t actually paint it with this post in mind; it was just meant to be fanart. But it features a flower (an orchid), so I thought why not include it. Definitely doesn’t look like he’s here to collect an award, though. 😅

 

The Last Sun by K.D. Edwards

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“Kathy, is this list just going to be a sad tear-fest?”

Okay. Fine. You want a happy book? Here’s a fucking happy book.

The Last Sun is exquisite. If I put on my Very Serious and Professional Content Creator voice, I can say that it’s got textbook-perfect pacing that never relents but doesn’t sacrifice worldbuilding or character work in the process. Its world is at once familiar and new, merging modern day societies with mythos from various cultures, all wrapped up in a dynamic tarot-based system of governance and magic. The story drags you up through adrenaline-pumping action and brings you down to quiet, vulnerable moments. It explores the fluidity of human connections and the idea that love between two or more people doesn’t start and end at “Wanna bang?”

My Professional? Who Am I Kidding voice:

ARRRRRRGHHHHHAAHHHHHHHHHGOREADIT

I think I’ve done almost all I can to promote this book, so really there’s only one thing left for me to do….

Ahem. Pyr, here’s my proposition to you. I am willing to do video promotions for this series in the form of interpretive dance and poetry. My credentials? Four months of ballroom lessons I took with a friend when I was 17 because he was convinced there would be waltzing at the prom and wanted to be ready (spoiler: as we weren’t in the 19th century or Hogwarts, there was no waltzing) and on-and-off years of spoken poetry.

Please. Call me.

In all seriousness, though, this is one of those stories that quietly creeps into your heart and decide they’re going to stay indefinitely. And you wake up one morning to find them pattering in the kitchen, setting out coffee (and just how the hell did they know exactly how you take it?) and then sitting across from you and chattering away like you’re old friends until you do become old friends.

And if you say, “You know, I haven’t had the best relationship with urban fantasies in the past. I just don’t think we’re compatible,” this book gives you a molten smile, reaches out a hand and says, “Let me show you something.”

And you nod and smile back like an idiot because it’s had you seduced from the first word.

 

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(Rune on the left, Brand on the right. Rune is supposed to have black hair but he somehow ended up with weird bleached highlights)

 

The Book of M by Peng Shepherd

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As someone who studies memories it’s so incredibly gratifying to come across a book that highlights their beauty in a way that’s as off-the-walls fantastical as this.

Peng Shepherd draws on the horror of memory loss and juxtaposes it with the beauty of human connections, and the result is unlike anything I’ve read before. “Genre-bending” doesn’t even begin to cover what this book does.

The Book of M has raised the bar for post-apocalypse stories and now I expect them all to include magical shadows and shifting realities.

 

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Smoke City by Keith Rosson

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I’m a girl of simple tastes. You say, “A story about the reincarnation of Joan of Arc’s executioner who goes on a road trip to seek redemption from a possibly reincarnated Joan of Arc,” and I say, “Well, I was born to read this.”

Smoke City was the first ARC I ever read and reviewed which might suggest a wee bit of bias, but really, this is one of those “very me” books that I’m unerringly drawn to. Reincarnated historical figures (and Joan of Arc, at that, who I happen to adore)? Check. Road trips? Buckle up. Fantasy bleeding into reality? Affirmative.

Keith Rosson takes a premise that has no business of working and creates a beautiful, imaginative, soulful piece of narrative that ruminates on pasts and mistakes and the forgiveness that we deserve but can never offer to ourselves.

 

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

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So this is an interesting one because I can’t exactly say I had a good time reading it and there were issues I had with some parts.

But here’s the thing: I couldn’t stop thinking about it. And eventually I called up a friend (who’s Japanese-Chinese and hasn’t even read the book but is blessed with a brain that actively craves–and I mean really cravesspoilers) and bullied her into a three-hour discussion on our countries’ histories and the slippery slope between loyalty and nationalism, and whether the pursuit of justice is worth it if in the process you lose all sense of who you are.

For me, that’s the mark of a book that deserves a spot on this list. It may not have been the most perfect book I read in 2018, but it was one of the most unforgettable.

 

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A Lite Too Bright by Samuel Miller

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So, by the end of November I was pretty confident in my best of 2018 choices. I didn’t think it likely that I’d come across another incredible book within the next month.

And then this book came along.

And one day I found it leaning on my doorway with its 70’s sweater and smiling eyes and the words of angels falling from its lips and, to take a page from Angelica Schuyler, I forgot my dang name.

A Lite Too Bright is the one non-speculative sheep of the group which should make it easy to describe but I actually find it harder because it’s, well…it’s a little bit of everything. Legacy, mental illness, 60’s/70’s protest culture, the relationship we have with our grandparents, life and the winding route it takes, and love and its ability to burrow so deep inside us that it’s what remains when everything else fades.

And poetry. Heartstopping poetry.

Miller writes with the insight of someone far older than his years and so, in turn, does Arthur Louis Pullman, the fictional author who’s at the focus of this story. Pullman is one of those people who seem to possess an inherent understanding of the world, but with that understanding comes neither cynicism or apathy but a desire to feel more keenly. His writing brims with aching amounts of passion and love–of life and the people that inhabit it–and it kills me that he’s not an actual person.

There’s a universe nestled in just a handful of his words. And I would need a universe’s worth of words to explain what this book makes me feel.

 

Jade City by Fonda Lee

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I can talk about how incredibly rich the world of Jade City is. I can talk about its vibrant characters and a plot that seamlessly mixes politics with action. But my most favourite thing about it is that it nails the Asian family dynamic to the core. And it made me miss my own extended family badly–my roudy tight-knit family of eight cousins, four aunts and uncles, and grandparents who, despite their years, still try to look after us all.

Now, the Kaul family had to take a raincheck on this ceremony–they kind of have their hands full, what with a war and all–but they were gracious enough to send an underling to receive the awards on their behalf (Translation: I couldn’t remember what the Kauls looked like and I was too lazy to draw multiple people)

And he looks truly ecstatic to be here. I mean, look at him!

 

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(Be a Finger, they said. Prestige and honour, they said.)

The shades are there to save you from getting blinded by the sheer joy that’s emanating from his eyes.

And the flowers on his head are gladioli–derived from gladius, which is a sword–and they represent strength and integrity. I thought that was pretty fitting for the Kauls.

 

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Whew! Applause to you and me both for surviving that!

Same time next year? 😀

(Also, Happy Canada Day to all my fellow Canadians!)

Top 5 Wednesday – Books at the Top of My TBR

“Top 5 Wednesday” is a weekly meme currently hosted on Goodreads by Sam of Thoughts on Tomes in which you list your top 5 for the week’s chosen topic.

This week’s topic is: Top of Your TBR.

And…that’s it. No fancy rewording for this one; it’s what it says on the tin. (Though I did limit the list to books that are already published) See, mom, I can simplify things!

 

Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak

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What’s an alternative phrase for “performance anxiety” to describe how you’re anxious about the performance of the other party because it’s been 10 long years of waiting–and you know it’s going to be good because they know exactly how to push your buttons, but what if it isn’t good?–so you keep putting it off and making half-hearted excuses like “Sorry, can’t today. I’m washing my hair” and “The stars aren’t aligned tonight. Not a good time”?

…Asking for a friend.

Right. Come February it’s gonna be you and me, Bridge of Clay. Show me what you got.

 

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

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I’ve been announcing to myself every year since 2011 that I’m going to read this for sure. Why break a seven-year tradition?

So, ahem. *taps mic* This year. For sure.

 

The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden

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I’ve been hearing so many incredible things about The Winter of the Witch from several bloggers whose opinions I wholly trust, so I figure now is the best time to continue with the series. It hasn’t been all that wintry here thanks to El Niño but at least I can live vicariously through Arden’s vivid descriptions.

 

Skyward by Brandon Sanderson

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I mean, firstly, it’s a Sanderson book (and I hear it’s great which is utterly unsurprising). Secondly, I have a feeling this might be a good sampler on what the third era Mistborn books might be like. Thirdly, it’s an overdue ARC and I really need to start chopping away at those.

 

Tower of Living and Dying (Empires of Dust 2) by Anna Smith Spark

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Another one that I absolutely wanted to get to in 2018 but couldn’t.

A few tidbits on these books (because I never actually talked about them on this blog):

Despite my local bookstore’s propensity to stick this series in the YA display (because women can’t possibly write grimdark fantasy for adults, amirite?) it’s very much an adult grimdark and probably best I’ve read in the past couple of years, for several notable reasons.

One, it’s sexy, which I never thought I’d say about a grimdark story. Yet it doesn’t weaponize sex to fuel the grimdark aspect (a common complaint I have with these books)–so there’s no rape or attempted rape to be found here.

Two, several of its main characters happen to be queer which is definitely something I don’t see in this subgenre (the traditionally published ones, anyway).

Three, Spark’s prose is the kind that I want to roll around in for days–a gorgeous interplay of poetry, sensuality, and bloody violence.

And if you’re now wondering, “Hell, why is it taking you so long to get to it, then?” don’t worry, I’m right there with you.

 

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What are some books that are at the top of your TBR right now?

Top 5 WedTuesday – Disappointing Books of 2018 That I Still Appreciate

“Kathy. I think it’s time for an intervention.”

“Uh, I have no idea what you’re talking about. As usual.”

“‘Top 5 WedTuesday‘? Published one day before the next Top 5 Wednesday?”

“Oh, get off my back. You make it sound like I do this every other week. This is literally the first–”

“And speaking of skirting deadlines, you still haven’t put up this month’s Discworld announcement post yet. Or your Best Books of 2018. Or your Best Indie Games of 2018. Or the reviews for books you read two months ago.”

“Listen, I’m running on a sleep schedule of my own devising right now. You know the Aussie Open started last week and you know their night matches go past 3 AM. What am I supposed to do, not watch them because I have blog-running responsibilities now?”

“Here’s a novel idea: you could do your blogging and watch the Open at the same time. I know, crazy!”

“Yeaaah, about that…”

*Looks over to the TV screen which shows tennis. Then at the the desktop screen which shows more tennis. Then at the tablet screen which shows, you guessed it, tennis.*

“…”

“Maybe a rich oil prince will get me another screen for my birthday. :)”

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So while the other half of my brain is having a breakdown, I’d like to clarify that yes, this was supposed to go live last week, but due to reasons that uh, may or may not have to do with tennis-induced sleep deprivation, it’s going live now! Because this is a topic that I actually really wanted to tackle.

The original prompt was “Disappointing Books of 2018” but I put a bit of a spin on it. These are books that didn’t quite live up to the expectations I set for them, but ones that I still appreciate for x, y, z reasons.

(And I’m hoping to get all (er, most) of those overdue posts up before the end of this month. Knock on wood!)

 

Temper by Nicky Drayden

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I loved Nicky Drayden’s debut Prey of Gods–a rollicking scifi-fantasy mashup featuring angry gods, drugs, and dik-diks (which belong alongside narwhals and quokkas in the “I can’t believe this isn’t a made-up animal” category). I could never really get a good foothold on Temper, unfortunately; I couldn’t connect with the main character and the rampant worldbuilding that I fell in love with in PoG I felt overwhelmed by this time around.

What I appreciate: I freaking adore Nicky’s imagination and her willingness to take the genre to batshit crazy places. Temper is even more weird and unconventional than Prey of Gods (which is saying a lot) and even though I couldn’t get into it, I still love the fact that it exists.

 

Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan

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This is one of those overdue reviews that I still have to finish. The TL;DR version is that I wanted to love this book so, so hard but it ended up being rather…underwhelming. The worldbuilding felt underdeveloped and Lei is one of those very reactive, blank slate protagonists that I’m not the biggest fan of. And the emperor, while a terrible person, kind of just starts and ends at “He’s a terrible person.”

What I appreciate: The heart and foundation behind this book is everything–an unapologetically Asian setting (the food descriptions are to die for), and love and friendship between two girls prevailing in the face of brutality.

 

Grey Sister (Book of the Ancestor 2) by Mark Lawrence

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An unpopular opinion: I thought Grey Sister was a step down from Red Sister, mostly due to character reasons. I felt that Nona’s development had stagnated and secondary characters that I adored in the first book took a backseat in this one.  [Full review]

What I appreciate: I love Mark’s writing style and his ability to move from poignancy to snappy action with fluid ease. Also, this is one of the most female-centric adult fantasy I’ve read in recent years–women loving women, women befriending women, women betraying women. Books like this are the reason I created a Goodreads shelf called “Boom goes the Bechdel test.”

 

Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky

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I think this is one of those stories I would have enjoyed more as a TV show. I mean, I watched a quite a few scifi anime that deal with similar themes of alien evolution and ended up liking them all, but apparently if you stick it in book-form my brain just laughs and says “Nope.” (Maybe it’s flashbacks to all the evolution textbooks/articles I had to read in undergrad–by far not my favourite biology topic). It didn’t help that I wasn’t much invested in the human half of the story.

What I appreciate: This is probably the best example (textbook, if you will) of evolutionary scifi that I’ve ever read and my scientist heart will root for the success of any SFF book that explores biology to this degree. It’s also pretty dang cool that the author shares a name with one of my favourite composers.

 

Strange Grace by Tessa Gratton

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Okay, overall I wouldn’t really call this one “disappointing,” but considering the sheer amount of potential it showed in the first half, the second half proved to be a bit of a letdown in terms of character development and pacing (and now I’d give it a slightly lower score than what I originally gave). [Full review]

What I appreciate: Polyamory. In YA. Plus creepy forests and pagan rituals. Enough said.

Top 5 Wednesday – 2019 Releases that I Didn’t Care About But Am Now Tentatively Anticipating

“Top 5 Wednesday” is a weekly meme currently hosted on Goodreads by Sam of Thoughts on Tomes in which you list your top 5 for the week’s chosen topic.

Oh boy oh boy. It feels like I haven’t done one of these in forever.

So, this week’s prompt was “2019 releases that I don’t care about.” But apathy is something that I actively try to fight off on a regular basis (thanks, depression), so dedicating an entire post to talking about things I don’t care about felt…I don’t know, counter-productive.

So I’m doing what I do best, which is complicating simple things, and changing it to “2019 releases that I didn’t care about but am now tentatively anticipating.” Now it starts off negative but ends on a sort-of positive note. 😀

 

The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon

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This one has been hyped to hell and back and for good reason. It’s thick, it’s got dragons and intrigue and possibly-interesting female characters, all wrapped up in a stupidly good-looking cover.

All of which made me shrug and think, “Yeah, this is too good to be true.”

But. It’s a door-stopper epic fantasy written by a female author with feminist themes, and I could stand outside my local mall all day holding up a sign that says “WE NEED MORE OF THOSE.” Plus I feel like it’d be a crime not to try out any book with that as a cover.

 

The Wicked King by Holly Black

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Okay, to be fair, this one had the “I don’t care” stamp before I’d read The Cruel Prince. And now that I have read it, while I’m not bouncing-off-the-walls excited (my anticipation levels for this book are about as lukewarm and kind-of-there-kind-of-not as Cardan), I am mildy curious to see how things pan out for Cardan and Jude.

 

Sherwood by Meagan Spooner

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I adore the original Robin Hood legend. My love hasn’t really been reciprocated in the past decade or so, however (not until recently with a certain series which I will most definitely ramble about in a separate post). Every adaptation that comes along swearing that it’s giving RH a fresh and interesting look is 1) neither of those things, or 2) something so weird and outlandish that it shouldn’t even have the “Robin Hood” title (looking at you, 2018 film).

While Sherwood isn’t the “gender-bent Robin Hood falls in love with Maid Marian” story that I was hoping for–it’s got Maid Marian taking the Robin Hood mantle while Robin’s off doing God knows what–I’m willing to give it a try.

 

Seven Blades in Black by Sam Sykes

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While I do love Sam Sykes as a person, I just couldn’t get into his Bring Down the Heaven series. There’s something about his writing that didn’t click with me. So Seven Blades in Black initially went in the “maybe I’ll try it one day” pile. 

I don’t remember why I moved it to the “anticipated” stack (probably because I caved into Sam’s Twitter charms), but it’s there now and hopefully I’ll take to it better than his previous books.

 

The Familiars by Stacey Halls

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I turned my nose at this one because the cover made me think it was a fable-y, magical realism story featuring witches and their familiars, but then I found out it’s actually about a woman dealing with pregnancy in the 17th century (with a witch hunt backdrop), which was decidedly less interesting to me.

But I do enjoy historical feminist stories, and there’s something super magnetic about that cover, so I’ll give it a shot!

 

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Are there any 2019 books that you’ve had a change of heart about?